Category Archives: Nature

Fat Tuesday Sunshine

On this Fat Tuesday afternoon here in northern Virginia, the sun is emphatic in its brightness and temperatures are well into the mid-50s.  Kiko again sought out his customary spring spot on the terrace.  He reminds me of a northern tourist revelling in the winter Caribbean sunshine.

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The sunshine was so abundant, so luxurious, and so relaxing,
that Kiko had no choice but to sleep.

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Before long he woke up, overheated.  It’s February 12, and he had to find some shade.

What is this Season? Winger? Sprinter? Springer?

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There will be a blizzard raging this weekend just to the north of the DC area. It seems that northern Virginia has already received our meager portion of accumulation.  We awoke to areas of white mushy crystals around the bases of trees.  Pine boughs drooped slightly under a thin coating of watery ice.  Now the temperature is rising and a light rain is falling.  Kiko evaluated conditions from the dry warmth of the front hall and deemed it too yucky to hurry out on our morning walk.  He is now cuddled on the office sofa, and I am very thankful. My daughter, of course, takes the  lack of snow as yet another personal affront by her old nemesis, the Weather.

What should we call this ambiguous season?  It’s winter one day, spring the next.  I’m more used to this pattern than many people, having grown up in Atlanta, where 70-degree temperatures routinely alternate with those of 30- or 40-degrees.  I remember when Virginia had four distinct seasons, but nowadays, they’re more of a blur.

Over the past week, the extreme cold has subsided here.  As the fine layer of snow in our yard disappeared, it revealed one of our first signs of spring:  the dark red clusters of buds that have fallen from our old silver maples.  These seem to appear earlier and earlier every year.  It’s not just a few buds, either, but many, heavily sprinkled over the yard.  The readiness of our big, battered maples continues to amaze me.  From the first cold days of winter, they are already anticipating spring.  Like good scouts, they are prepared, standing sentry for the first warmer rays of sunshine.  And during these recent winters, they receive many confusing signals:  Get ready!  No, wait!  Yes, go ahead!  No, no, no, hold up– it’s snowing!  Wrong  again–it’s only rain.  I feel bad for our trees; such see-sawing conditions must be hard on their elderly systems.

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A tiny bouquet of silver maple buds, some already sprouting with fine pale green foliage.

The melting snow revealed further evidence of a new season.  Bright yellow-green daffodil shoots are already emerging from the ground.  Unless you’re in the extreme north, you’re probably noticing them, too. The beginning of February really seems too early for them to be heading up and out, but who am I to judge?

Another unexpected sign of spring at our house is this: Kiko has already been dozing in his favorite sunny spot on the back terrace by the garage doors.  I watched him as he settled there after an unsuccessful pursuit of a squirrel at the bird feeder. In years past, I don’t remember ever seeing him there before April or so.

And finally, what about the robins?  I know I can’t be the only one to notice that the robins are choosing to remain with us in Virginia all winter long, just as they always do in Georgia.  I used to remember noticing their distinct absence, as well as their much-anticipated return.  They typically left around the first of December and showed up again with the melting snows of early March.  But this winter and last, having apparently adjusted to the weather roller coaster, they haven’t bothered to fly south.  They are hopping across our thawing lawn right now, drilling for worms.

To the many disappointed kids like my daughter, I’m sorry that the hoped-for snow is nothing but rain. I’m sorry today’s slush wasn’t even enough to warrant a two-hour delay. And to those of you in the path of this weekend’s storm, good luck, and take care.  For all of us, spring (or sprummer?) will be here sooner than we expect.  Although who can say what season will follow?

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Daffodil shoots popping up from the mulch in our back garden.

                                   

Early-Morning Irritability

I try not to use my blog to rant about life’s trivial annoyances. But today I’ll risk sounding like a pouty child. This morning, a series of minor nuisances really ticked me off.

It began around 6:20, when I applied myself, with much concentration, to the vexing mystery of the moment—how to get the little rubber ring to stay put on the lid of my daughter’s new thermos. I persisted, but had no success. The bell of the toaster oven dinged. Because I had devoted too much pointless effort to the thermos, the mini-bagels I had been toasting for D’s breakfast were burned beyond rehabilitation.

It was at this inopportune moment that my husband wandered blithely into the kitchen. He remarked, in all innocence, that he couldn’t understand why D, who is in the process of choosing the classes she will take next year in high school (high school!), needs to continue studying English. She can read. She’s a good writer. What more does she need to know about English?

That comment, following so quickly on the heels of my thermos and bagel difficulties, was the last straw. My poor fragile camel’s back cracked sharply in half. Some say, I responded, through slightly clenched teeth, that there is value in literature. While reading good books is unlikely to lead to a well-paid career . . .no . . . it’s likely to ensure the absence of a well-paid career, it offers some help in coping with life’s disappointments. I stopped there. I did not add this further petulant bitterness: that reading offers the possibility of occasionally eking out some small measure of joy in a world rife with uncooperative thermos rings, annoying toaster ovens and clueless husbands whose idea of enlightening reading is an online windsurfing forum. H wisely kept quiet until he left for work.

And then Kiko and I went out for our walk. Another lovely light snow had fallen. I expected that the walk would lighten my mood. But no. Paved surfaces were far more slippery than I had expected, and Kiko insisted on attempting a break-neck pace, determined to run, if not in the road, then as close to it as possible, where the cars were hurtling by us more aggressively than usual. The salt from the road frequently stung his paws, prompting him to limp flamboyantly, one foot in the air, yet without lessening his speed. I had to repeatedly kneel down to brush the snow from his paw pads. An icy, gusty wind whipped the snow into my eyes, and the blue glare of the sun on the white ground was blinding. My ears were wet and freezing under my scarf, while my hands were too hot in my mittens. I was reminded vividly of why I find skiing so unpleasant. Our morning outing was an ordeal to be suffered through.

On a happier note, it sure is good to be back home.  Alone, except for my silent dog, now sleeping peacefully in another room.

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H telephoned later, warning me about the icy roads and clearly trying to appease my irrational meanness.  I’m feeling better now.  As Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say:  Never mind.

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It was a beautiful morning to be annoyed.

                     

What is this White Stuff?

 

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We woke up this morning, unexpectedly, to snow.  It wasn’t a lot of snow, but it was enough to cover the yard and nicely powder the trees and shrubs, to give the world a sort of winter facelift.  It’s been ages since we’ve seen snow here in northern Virginia, so it was a welcome sight.  Schools were delayed two hours, giving my daughter, a snow fanatic, the chance to enjoy it.  The snow piled up prettily on the nandina berries, above.

Today’s snow is pleasant, attractive and manageable.  I don’t miss the winters of constant snow, as my daughter does.  When she was in preschool and kindergarten, seems like every Friday from December through February brought just enough accumulation to shut down the schools.  The prospect of another snow day overjoyed her as much as it exhausted me.  I don’t look back fondly on the  years of blizzard after blizzard.  I hated the many transportation worries.  Will the schoolbus make it through?  Will the steeply winding road home be passable?  Should I cancel that appointment? What havoc will be wreaked by those drivers who have no business venturing out in such weather?  Will my husband get stuck behind someone who is unwisely inching up the long hill, again?  Will D and I be left to try to shovel the driveway alone, anxiously awaiting roadside updates from H?

The snowy weather ceased, of course, once H bought a snowblower.  While he’s been itching to give it a try, I wouldn’t mind if he doesn’t need it again this winter.  Or, maybe, to please him and D, he could use it just once.  For their sake, I wouldn’t mind one lovely deep snow.  While I’m wishing, I’ll wish for the flakes to start falling some Friday night after we’re all safely home.

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The yard was covered, just barely, with snow.  The trees and bushes were powdered white.

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Kiko seemed to have completely forgotten that he had ever experienced snow before.  He found it strange but exhilarating. 

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The first glimpse of the sun in the sky this morning could have been lifted from a Currier and Ives print.

Cold, Miserable Rainy-Day Dog-Walking

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The recent cold, rainy weather here in Virginia has been the sort that tests even the most dedicated dog walker. The mornings have brought no pastel watercolor skies, no evidence, really, at all, of the existence of a distant, light and life-giving golden orb. There is only a gradual diminishing of the steely gray darkness. The atmosphere of pervasive gloom is not lessened as the day progresses. It’s hard to look on the bright side when no bright side is visible.

On dreary wet mornings like this one, Kiko’s enthusiasm for the first outing of the day is, thankfully, muted. If the sound of rain is loud and continuous, he might remain curled in his bed, small and fox-like, for several hours. We have postponed that initial walk as late as 11:00 AM on some rainy days. I was hoping this would be the case today, but unfortunately it was not. I was able to delay him for about an hour, but no longer.

I cannot complain of being poorly equipped for dog walking in inclement weather. Prompted either by tender familial devotion or a determination that none of us would have an excuse for not walking the dog on wet days, my husband has outfitted the whole family with extensive rain gear. In addition to hooded, high-tech jackets, we have waterproof boots and pants. If it’s pouring rain, and if I can locate my rain pants (that’s a big if), I’m glad to pull them on over my jeans. More typically, I decide that the rain isn’t steady or strong enough to warrant leg protection. I usually regret this decision, as I did today.

Rain seems to bring out the absolute worst in Kiko’s on-leash behavior. You’d never know he is a Puppy Obedience School grad. (But we have the photo of him, looking ridiculous in a mortarboard hat, to prove it.) The wet weather apparently enhances the depth and variety of earthy smells, so Kiko dawdles excessively, his nose working furiously. Rainy-day walks seem to be, for my dog, the equivalent of science labs. Unless I tug him unmercifully, we inch along. Every clump of grass beckons, begging to be sniffed and sampled, its delicate taste evidently heightened by the rain. Every messy smudge on the road asks to be examined and identified. Dangerous human snacks like bony chicken wings are more likely to be discovered on rainy days, and I must fish them out of his mouth with my fingers. At least Kiko has outgrown his taste for earthworms. If he finds nothing of interest directly in front of him, he tends to stand transfixed, a model of indecision, checking the air for enticing aromas nearby. Finally, there’s what I call his fake-out marking, more prevalent in the rain. He smells a spot lingeringly and intently; he pauses, looks up, almost lifts his leg, yet decides against it.

The more impatient and miserable I become during these rainy walks, the slower Kiko moves. This morning I opted against bringing an umbrella. No matter how often I tugged my hood forward, it kept slipping back, letting rain drop into my eyes, ears and hair. Water trickled into the gap at my wrist between jacket and glove. My gloves were soon heavy and cumbersome. My formerly watertight boots have recently developed a leak, and the first puddle admitted a small flood. One foot was immediately drenched.

The final part of the walk is the worst, along a narrow county road that winds along by the stream bed. It’s picturesque, but treacherous. The nearly nonexistent shoulder is muddy, rutted and overgrown. I’m continually amazed at the cars that fly by, mere inches from my shoulder. I have been known, I admit, to shake my head slowly from side to side, or even to gesture forcefully, if not specifically, in hopes that some may think to slow down, or perhaps, when there is no oncoming traffic, to move closer to the center line. If I ever turn up in the “Public Safety Notes” of our free local paper, I predict it will be due to my encounter with some driver along this stretch of road. I hope it will involve no bodily harm to either party. I expect it will mention something like a “heated verbal exchange.”

For those of you, who, like me, are out there with your dog on dismal mornings, I commiserate with you. And for those who have no dog that requires walking, be sure to count this today as one of your blessings!

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He looks so sweet–why can’t he sleep all day long? 

A January Dawn

In my last post, I was dwelling on the dying of the day, on the quick and early onset of the January evening, to be faced without benefit of Christmas candles.  This morning, as Kiko and I set out on our walk, I realized it had been a while since I paid close attention to the onset of the day.  This winter sunrise, I would be observant.  I was not disappointed.

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The morning didn’t appear especially promising as we began.  The sky was stubbornly gray, the land dull and shadowy.  The possibility of further light seemed unlikely.  But before long, real signs of sunrise became evident.  Soon the bare tree branches were silhouetted in inky black, as in a Magritte painting, against a sky that shaded from rose to lavender.  A bright crescent moon hung, jewel-like. 

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These trees seem to lean in towards one another for company as they await the light.

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I hadn’t planned on venturing into the woods, but Kiko was determined.  Despite the difficulties of negotiating the brambles and unruly profusion of vines while being tugged along by my headstrong dog, I was glad he insisted.  A perfect-looking January morning should be snow-covered, in my opinion.  In the absence of the white fluffy stuff, a heavy frost is the next-best adornment.  The tangled weeds along the banks of the creek were dressed up with a pearly iridescent coating.  The woods and sky glowed with the same pale, elegant luminosity.  Such winter mornings are among the early-rising dog-walkers’ best rewards; I’m glad I didn’t miss this one. 

Moving On, Into a New Year

It’s the seventh of January, 2013.  Epiphany has been celebrated; the Christmas season is officially over.  The electric candles in our windows have clicked on and off for the last time this winter. Tonight’s early January dusk will have to stand on its own; there will be no soothing, quasi-magical boost of simulated candlelight. We are back in ordinary time. Yet again, the days sped by too quickly.

 

This is the dreaded week of my Christmas clean-up.   I began the day by wandering remorsefully through the house, wishing we hadn’t put up six trees, wondering where to start the process of un-decoration. As always, I will resolve this year, for a change, to find the right boxes for the packing-up.  When I can’t manage that, I will vow to locate an actual working marker to label the boxes.  When even that proves undoable, I will tell myself that I’ll remember what I put where.  Eleven months from now, I will be standing in our frigid attic, muddled and confused.  The box that professes to contain miniature trees will be full of stockings and bead garlands.  Where did the box of white lights go this time?  Some crucial item, usually one of our star tree-toppers, will have vanished completely.

But it’s a new year, and it’s time to move on. The trappings of the holiday season have undergone an unmistakable, unsavory shift in essence. Five weeks ago, they were the stuff of joy and hope. Now they are clutter. The blue spruce is droopy and dry, its needles as sharp as steel.

I look forward, past the mess, envisioning the uncluttered, restful simplicity of mid-January.  It’s an illusion, a vanishing mirage, of course.  With a vengeance, this first month bursts with the business of everyday life.  A glance at the calendar reveals an exhausting proliferation of church meetings, school volunteer meetings and appointments with doctors.  All that and all the Christmas debris, still here.

Yet the reality of the new year brings a clearer, if starker, light.  It gladdens my heart to think that the shortest, darkest day of the year has come and gone. The earth is turning, tilting toward spring. The leaves of the rhododendrons in our back garden shrivel in the cold, but their blooms are set, ready and waiting.  Nature’s optimism and foresight promises renewal.  It really is time to move on.

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A rhododendron bud stands by for spring.

Frosty December Morning

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A beautiful frost covered the ground during my early-morning walk today with Kiko.  My little dog was especially frisky, evidently invigorated by the chill in the air and the intriguing sensation of the frost.  He tends to paw daintily and delicately at the icy grass, then exhaust himself by running through it in wild and exuberant circles.  I was struck by the muted yet luminous colors that had descended upon our ordinary neighborhood.  Lawns were glazed blue-green, and bright red nandina foliage had paled to a shimmery rose, like the sky above (although that eluded my camera).  The world looked like one of those sparkling holiday centerpieces of red and green grapes dipped in egg whites and sugar.  I’ve never made that sort of frosted fruit, but I’m thinking I will have to give it a try this Christmas season. 

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November Woods

While there is no denying the bright glory of mid-October foliage, I find the muted palette of November equally beautiful in its own way.  After most of the leaves have fallen, our neighborhood woods wear their subtle winter tones of gray, beige and brown.  The few remaining autumn dashes of orange, flame-red and green stand out like colorful stitching on a sensible tan tweed jacket.  On this day, the leaves were so deep that the familiar path was hidden.  Kiko, however, our sure-footed guide, knew the way by smell. 

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I like the star-like shape formed by the core of this fallen tree’s roots. 

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D and Kiko on the banks of the hidden lake.

A Fall Berry Harvest

I’ve always loved the many varieties of berries that ripen in the fall, adding to the season’s spectacular color.  I’m not especially picky–I have a soft spot for weeds and climbing vines some term pesky and invasive, as long as they produce nice berries.  Poke, privet, lyriope, elaeagnus–all these were readily  available in and around the yard of my childhood home in Atlanta.  We had a couple of holly trees, but they were not prolific berry-producers.  For fall and Christmas displays, we had to turn elsewhere.

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The neat, grape-like clusters of nandina were our stand-in for holly.  And when we transformed the concrete wasteland behind our Virginia house into a real backyard with actual plants, I knew I wanted to include nandina, or heavenly bamboo, which spoke so clearly of home.  The green, lacy foliage turns red in the fall, just like its fruit.  The nandina berries, I can happily say, are ripening now along our fencerow.  If the birds don’t eat them all, I’ll have some to bring in for Christmas.

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About a week after the above photo, the nandina berries and foliage are brighter still.

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I find bittersweet to be a particularly enchanting vine. It didn’t grow in Atlanta, but I vaguely remembered it from my younger days in Kentucky. I rediscovered it in the woodsy surroundings of our first apartment in New Jersey.  I brought it in by the armful.  Like wild trumpet vine, it’s one of those climbing plants that can take over if left unchecked. Here in Virginia, we typically see bittersweet growing in a pleasant tangle at the edge of the woods. Its berries pass through several different stages, all interesting and attractive. In early summer, the new berries are bright green, surrounded by abundant leaves. Gradually the berries turn yellow, as above.  With cooler weather, the hulls pop open to reveal bright orange-red seed globes, segmented rather like tiny beach balls.  The pliable, free-form vines are easily wound into wreaths.

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      Once cut, the bittersweet pods quickly open to reveal their red-orange fruit.

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The bright cherry-red berries of fall honeysuckle shine with a silvery glow like bubble-shaped jewels. Each berry is perfect–perfectly red, perfectly round, perfectly sized. I learned the hard way not to bring these inside–they are very juicy and tend to stain tablecloths and rugs.

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This Japanese dogwood or Kousa Tree is laden now with its characteristically lumpy, globular fruit, which are edible and said to be tasty, although I’ve never sampled them.  For some reason, they strike me as vaguely futuristic, like something we might see on the Jetsons.

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During the years before we renovated our backyard, one of our few touches of greenery was an immense pokeweed that sprung up every spring in a small patch of ground beside our old porch.  It offered some shade and color, and the birds flocked to its berry clusters.  I enjoy the plant’s evolving appearance.  At the ends of young stems, tiny, pale pink blossoms appear in early spring.  These are transformed first into bright green berries and, in late summer, into plump, dark-purple spheres.  The stems also change color, from a lavender pink to a bold magenta.  The vigorous heartiness of pokeweed, as well as its amazing rate of growth, make it a force to be respected.  Long used in herbal remedies, the plant is being studied as a possible cancer-fighter due to its established antiviral properties.  Children should nevertheless be warned that the luscious-looking berries can be toxic to humans.

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In late summer and fall, the pink climbing roses on our garage trellis give way to these jumbo rose hips that resemble large gumballs or miniature tomatoes.  A Martha Stewart disciple would laboriously harvest them for jam, but we are content to appreciate their autumn color.  Kiko occasionally awakens from sleeping in the sun to munch on a rose hip if one happens to have fallen nearby.  He seems to find them tastiest when they are rather shriveled and overly ripe.